Some live nearby; others travel from afar. Some work in secular careers; others serve as pastors, chaplains or church leaders. All come with the desire to go deeper and ultimately to help others to do so as well.
The students in Perkins’ Certification in Spiritual Direction program gathered in early December for a weekend class session on the campus of SMU, as part of a three-year, noncredit continuing education course that trains participants in the art of accompanying and guiding others in their spiritual journeys. In August, the program welcomed its 26th cohort, the largest in recent years.
Ruben Habito, who directs the program, attributes the growth in participation, in part, to a concerted effort in early 2019 to build awareness of the program.
“We sent a mass email to churches and others in the Perkins community, to let people know about the program and encourage them to consider how it might enrich their own spiritual well-being,” he said. “There also seems to be a growing thirst among people in the pews for ways of going more deeply, to find more spiritually satisfying avenues beyond the usual worship and church programs.”
Habito adds that word of mouth has helped grow the program, too. Graduates and current students find the program well-designed, helpful and enriching, and they tell their friends.
A growing number of people, too, are simply aware of what spiritual directors do. As the program’s website explains, “Spiritual directors are trained to listen, pray and ask questions in a fashion that encourages directees to look for the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They ask the kind of questions that nurture the growth of wisdom, using the tools and values that have been sharpened over two millennia of prayerful observation.”
Each incoming class of students joins a cohort that studies together throughout the three years. The program is designed for graduate students, lay people and clergy, all of whom are represented in the current group of students.
Started in 2010
The program was initiated in 2010 under the leadership of Dr. Frederick Schmidt, with a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Initially a two-year program, the curriculum was expanded in 2016 with additional practicum sessions. To date, more than 300 students have earned certifications.
New cohorts begin each year in April and August. Students study throughout the year, reading books, writing papers and attending online classes, then gather on campus for eight weekend class sessions during the three years. Students are encouraged to meet regularly with a spiritual director at least six months before beginning the program and to continue to meet at least monthly while in the program. The program is ecumenical and works within a Christian framework.
“It’s open to spiritual seekers,” Habito said. “Anyone who can understand and appreciate what is offered through the Christian perspective is welcome.”
While most entered with plans to serve as spiritual directors, many participants said the program has been personally nourishing, too. David Taylor, a third-year student, noted an unexpected side benefit: The program has helped him to learn to listen more attentively to his grandchildren. “I am much more patient and able to listen to anyone, anywhere, thanks to this program,” he added.
Dr. Mark Hausfield, a leader in the Assemblies of God denomination and another third-year student, said, “I work with pastors and missionaries. I take care of everyone else. Who’s going to take care of me?” The certification program, he said, serves as a form of self-care that ultimately enables him to serve more effectively.
Habito says that’s a key goal. While the program covers contemplative practices, its ultimate aim is to enrich students’ spiritual lives and their relationships so as to deepen their commitment to live compassionate lives.
“The basis of self-care is the realization you are cared for unconditionally by God,” he said. “With full consciousness of being cared for, beyond anything we can imagine, that allows us to care for others. Spirituality is not something that separates us from our day-to-day, but gives us light for how to live.”
Many participants expressed gratitude for the friendships made through the program. During the opening portion of the December class session, students’ voices broke with emotion as they shared how meaningful these relationships have become.
“I hope you become friends for life,” Habito told the group.
Meet the Soul Shakers
Each cohort adopts a nickname; the newest cohort is the “Soul Shakers” and includes 17 participants from a variety of backgrounds. (Two are currently taking a leave of absence, but at 15, the group still ranks among the largest in recent years.)
Robin Linck, a Dallas resident, a Roman Catholic and an accountant, is a student in this newly formed Soul Shakers cohort. After some major life changes, she became interested in meditation and contemplative practice; the certification program seemed like the right next step.
“I’m a person who has lived in my head all my life, and I was very happy there,” she said. “Now I’m learning to live in my heart.”
Another Soul Shaker is Kathleen Kisner, a Perkins alum (M.Div. ’97), wife, mother of two kids and associate pastor of Walnut Street United Methodist Church in Chillicothe, Ohio. Kisner travels to Dallas for the program’s on-campus portion. She wants to prepare to assist parishioners who desire spiritual guidance, and the Perkins program fit her needs.
“Perkins offers one of the few weekend programs, which works for my schedule,” she said.
Dorothy Pierce joined the program after retiring from a career as a schoolteacher and counselor. When she came across information about the Spiritual Direction program, it seemed like exactly what she needed, and she signed up immediately.
“I was at a place in my life where I needed to understand not only my walk but God also,” she said. “I questioned the spirit and my feelings. Even though I am in the church and doing things, I felt I needed a better understanding of Christianity.”
As regional pastor for Methodist Healthcare Ministries in the San Antonio area, Vanessa LeVine’s job involves ministering to people who are caretakers – nurses, counselors and other pastors. LeVine hopes that the program will help her better serve those who are at risk for burnout.
“This was a natural progression for me, to dive deeper into spiritual direction,” she said. “I also appreciate the peer support and the relationships with everyone here. It’s my way of practicing what I preach.”